RIDDLE: What's worse than finding a rattlesnake...


RIDDLE: What's worse than finding a rattlesnake in your Baltimore-area backyard?

Answer: Finding an adolescent rattlesnake.

Knockdown: Ha. You don't have to worry about rattlesnakes in metro Baltimore. Out in the Western Maryland mountains; that's another matter, though.

Perspective: Lots of folks who grew up in the Baltimore Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area heard that piece of nature lore early. Local scouts are still being taught the same thing.

Twist: Don't believe quite everything you hear as a kid.

Improved Research: Except for two places, rattlesnakes don't live on the Piedmont Plateau, which includes all of metropolitan Baltimore, says Herbert S. Harris, curator of herpetology for the Natural History Society of Maryland and, it so happens, rattlesnake researcher.

Localized populations of timber rattlesnakes live at Pretty Boy Reservoir in northern Baltimore County and Sugarloaf Mountain in southeastern Frederick County, Mr. Harris says. Both craggy areas typify habitat timber rattlers prefer, not the Piedmont's prevalent terrain.

1991 Update: Frank Checkes, his mother and some acquaintances will vouch that rattlers live elsewhere in Maryland, too. In his mother's Ellicott City backyard, to be exact, where Mr. Checkes killed one while mowing the lawn several weeks back. Initially skeptical staff from adjoining Patapsco Valley State Park identified the snake as a timber rattler, although not necessarily as their rattler. Mr. Checkes had the 2-foot-long snake's skin and rattles mounted. Since that late-June evening, no more rattlers have been found.

Good News, Bad News: Mr. Harris says a fellow snake-fancier determined first-hand the Ellicott City snake wasn't a timber rattler, after all. It was a canebrake rattler, a huskier, pinker, more robust sub-specie whose closest natural habitat is Tidewater Virginia.

Corporate Responsibility: Timber or canebrake, common or not in metro Baltimore, don't trifle with these ugly, poisonous snakes. If bitten, immediate medical help is mandatory. You're unlikely to drop dead on the spot, but you will become memorably ill and possibly could experience permanent paralysis near the bite.

Better, if you poke and climb around the craggy, rough areas in Maryland timber rattlers prefer, pay attention. Normally, the snakes will lie motionless or retreat. But don't accidentally grab or step on one. They're not great fans of you, either.

Wait, how'd that critter get to Howard County?: Who knows? Maybe our adolescent (not enough rattles to be a big 'un) had been found elsewhere and freed here. Possibly it fell from a train on CSX's riverside line, park manager Walter Brown theorizes. Maybe it came by truck, Mr. Harris suggests. No way, though, he says, are Mom, Dad, Sis, or Bro' likely lurking along the Patapsco. There, feel better?

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